Stephen Colbert wants you to know that he’s not “Stephen Colbert” anymore.
It’s been one week since Colbert made his late-night debut in David Letterman’s CBS slot of 22 years, and in that seven-episode stretch, Colbert has mentioned a handful of times, in some form or fashion, that he’s no longer the conservative, know-nothing political pundit he played on The Colbert Report for nine years.
“I begin the search for the real Stephen Colbert,” he declares during episode one’s monologue. “I just hope I don’t find him on Ashley Madison.”
Whichever Colbert showed up to the totally renovated Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City on day one, he drew in 6.55 million viewers, dusting his late-night frat brothers, and garnering radiating reviews: Everyone loves Colbert! Colbert can do no wrong! But is the rush of praise just a hangover from an intense love affair with The Colbert Report and the fact that Colbert the man just seems so nice and is clearly very talented? Moreover, can he grow out the almost decade-long shadow he cast himself on Comedy Central?
The through-line to both questions–and the answers that are beginning to form a week into The Late Show–comes back to identity.
Since it was announced in April that Colbert would be joining the ranks of late night’s new wave that’s ushered in the likes of Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, and James Corden, the looming thought among residents of Colbert Nation has been, “Who will Colbert be now?”
As it turns out, he’s pretty much the same person.
Try as he might to distance himself from his previous persona–or adopt the persona of perpetually trying to shed his previous persona–Colbert is still an actor in comedic role playing a TV host. That’s not to suggest Colbert has made a lateral move–quite the opposite, in fact. Go one layer deeper behind that comedy mask with its trademark arched brow and you’ll find the real Colbert who is one of the sharpest and most thoughtful satirists, political or otherwise, on TV. It’s this quality that gives Colbert his most promising shot to remake late-night TV in his image.
“Longtime viewers of my face know that I don’t play a political pundit anymore. But as an actor, I can still pretend to care about the latest developments in the presidential race.” — Stephen Colbert, season one, episode three
The Colbert Report “hangover” is best cured by the hair of the dog–in this case, the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. If ever there was a time for Colbert to transition out of The Colbert Report and into The Late Show, the quadrennial carnival of characters jockeying for the White House provides it.
As fake as Colbert’s political punditry was on his previous show, the man is clearly adept at navigating the political structure and, equally so, at skewering it, which puts him in a position well above Kimmel and Fallon, who both during interviews with some of the biggest names in politics have bounced on the much softer side of questioning even for late night.
Take, for example, Fallon’s interview with GOP frontrunner Donald Trump. Fallon asks Trump what he thinks he’s doing right to stay ahead of the polls and Trump hot-gasses his way to a non-answer that even Fallon realizes was off base–“What question did I ask? I don’t know what the hell just happened!”–but does nothing to press Trump for an explanation.
No one is asking for a late-night show to become Meet the Press, but it’s hard to imagine Colbert letting Trump slide like that given that Colbert has been routinely whetting his barbs toward Trump night after night.
Yet even when interviewing a candidate like Jeb Bush who’s decidedly less of a firebrand than Trump, Colbert rides sweetly on the rails dividing jokes and journalism. Bush’s answer to how he differs politically from his brother, former president George W. Bush, could have ended at his P.C. quip of “I’m obviously younger–much better looking!” However, Colbert brushes it all aside to get to an answer of substance (skip ahead to the 38:00 mark of episode one.)
As the presidential race bounds toward 2016, Colbert’s voice will add much-needed texture to how network late night covers politics–one can only dream that Colbert’s booking department will honor viewers with a tête-à-tête with the Donald himself.
The format for late-night TV has crystallized into the staid structure of opening monologue, sidekick/house band banter, a smattering of skits and schtick, guest interviews, and a musical guest to boot. Colbert has rattled the handcuffs of the new set of network rules that bind him–e.g., his hilariously bizarre take on corporate sponsorship–but he has yet to actually pick the lock.
He could, however, set a new precedent for guests.
For stars like George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, and Emily Blunt, the couch gab is second nature at this point, but Colbert is rounding out his roster of talent with some familiar names who may have unfamiliar faces for the general public: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Eschewing the obvious for high-profile people who normally don’t get mainstream, broadcast coverage isn’t guaranteed to be illuminating: Colbert basically echoed the same interview he had with Musk on The Colbert Report back in July 2014 and Kalanick couldn’t shake his salesman pitch.
But Cook was different. During an appearance on last night’s show, Colbert gently steered conversation to the very personal matter of why Cook decided to come out as gay. There’s a host of topics Colbert could have raised with Cook concerning Apple’s pending suite of new products announced at last week’s Apple Event, yet the focus of the interview was on Cook’s sexuality and how he’s changing the company to do greater good in the world.
With a grab bag of guests every night, Colbert’s agility as an interviewer has the potential to extract, internalize, and relate those moments that can, thankfully, sometimes slip away from comedy. For instance, Vice President Joe Biden’s highly emotional comments about his late son Beau.
The interview switched from cracks about work commutes to faith, family, and loss in a way that was reminiscent of Colbert’s legendary predecessor and his interview with musician Warren Zevon, who made his last appearance on The Late Show in 2002 in what many believe to be one of Letterman’s greatest episodes.
The high-energy vibe of The Late Show is almost enough to distract you from finding out who’s behind the curtain making it all happen–and in Colbert’s case, he unfortunately falls right in step with the problem that late night, and TV in general, has failed to solve: more diversity in the writers’ room.
Of Colbert’s 18 writers, only two are women, which seems strange given Colbert’s August column in Glamour on “why he thinks women should be in charge of everything.”
“[…] I’m here for you, and that means I’m going to do my best to create a Late Show that not only appeals to women but also celebrates their voices. These days TV would have you believe that being a woman means sensually eating yogurt, looking for ways to feel confident on heavy days, and hunting for houses. But I’m going to make a show that truly respects women, because I know that there’s more than one way to be one.”
But where’s the follow-through? Granted, the bulk of Colbert’s team at The Late Show are transplants from The Colbert Report. However, having a clean slate–the one he made so clear he wanted–on an enormous platform would have been the crucial time to diversify, at the very least, the writing staff. It could be that Colbert just needed that immediate support of a staff he knows and trusts to get The Late Show off the ground and will make way for more women and minorities later in the season–or, fingers crossed, seasons.
Shifting your identity that’s become your brand–on a public stage with millions of viewers, no less–is a leap of faith in the hope that those who got you where you are will take that leap with you. Colbert’s first week hasn’t been a runaway hit every night–and why would it be? After nine years in one skin, shedding it for another is a work in progress to find the right fit. But Colbert would be remiss to dismiss his alter ego entirely. What will be the determining factor in his success on network TV rests with his ability to package what he’s honed as a satirist and post-modern journalist on The Colbert Report into the existing late-night product, creating a place for himself that doesn’t rely on a rotating bevy of celebrities every night or skits made for next-day viral fodder, but instead on intelligent conversations and commentary that, while still entertaining, can take on shades of gravitas at the drop of a quip.